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‘Oh wow.’ How public servants react when the minister asks who worked for their opponent

It sounds ominous — a minister asking for a list of public servants seconded to the last minister’s office before a change of government — but it was all just a big misunderstanding, according to South Australian frontbencher David Speirs, whose office caused a mild stir in his department.

The amusing tale is illustrated by emails and text messages released to the opposition in early October in response to a series of freedom of information requests. Initially, departmental staff were taken aback by their new minister’s entreaty, which was sent through in March and later came to the attention of the shadow minister for government accountability, Tom Koutsantonis.

Danielle Elston, the SA Department for Environment and Water’s director of organisational reform, conveyed her surprise in a text to her former colleague Caroline Croser-Barlow mainly through punctuation — !!!? — and received the equally perplexed reply: “Oh wow.”

The minister said it all was totally innocent and he simply wanted to consider those with experience in MO roles for his own office, and did hire some, suggesting he didn’t realise how it might be perceived.

Speirs initially denied he was aware of the request when asked about it directly by Koutsantonis, who then accused him of misleading parliament in September after the department’s chief executive John Schutz confirmed it did happen in a committee hearing. The Speaker, and later government MPs, repelled a push from the opposition to have the matter referred to the parliamentary privileges committee for inquiry.

Schutz said in September the list was to help the new ministerial team “establish an interim structure for the minister and understand what roles the minister’s office required to perform its functions” and said he sought advice from the public service commissioner about whether it would be appropriate to comply. The advice was to proceed with care.

Croser-Barlow had an idea about how to respond to the “sensitive question” that is redacted from the FOI release. “Whilst tricky, I think total compliance best,” Elston said after agreeing with the tentative plan. But she also wanted to clarify the request and had a “conversation about politicisation of staff” with media officer Lynne Hare.

Croser-Barlow, who has since moved to Education, texted Hare she was “uncomfortable” with the framing of the request and wanted to double-check they had understood what Speirs’ chief of staff Cullen Bailey was asking for, and why.

“I think the other thing to ask Cullen is what he thinks he will do with the names of people once he has them,” she said. “Like, if they believe they are politicised, useful to understand they are PS Act employees and so not necessarily able to terminate them.”

In another text a few days later she told senior executive Matt Johnson she was “a bit anxious” about the request.

Schutz told the September committee hearing he had immediately informed Bailey that Speirs had given an incorrect answer in parliament, and Koutsantonis said it was “inconceivable” the chief of staff would not have passed this on to the minister so he could correct the record.

Author Bio

Stephen Easton

Stephen Easton is the associate editor at The Mandarin based in Canberra. He's previously reported for Canberra CityNews and worked on industry titles for The Intermedia Group.